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Jem Bendell |
Almost a decade ago, as the Indonesian tropical forests were burning out of control, I wrote that climate change had moved from theory to reality. But whose reality?1 Since then we've had a decade of business-as-usual, with carbon emissions booming in tandem with economic growth across the global South and steadily climbing in most of the North.
But recently something has changed. Friends now say to me, "so it's true, the climate is changing" and "it's big, everyone's talking about it," and some even say "it's because of us". As the emphasis on climate at the Oscars illustrated, carbon is the new black. Global Warming used to be a nerdy issue of scientific interest and environmental concern. Now it is a personal issue, of political interest and humanitarian concern. What made this happen? What made Climate Change reach a 'tipping point' to become hot gossip, even in countries like India where some might assume other matters are more pressing?
The phrase 'tipping point' refers to that dramatic moment when something unique becomes common. Popularised by Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book of the same name, it is used to describe the point when the rate at which a process proceeds increases dramatically. Gladwell identifies three characteristics of people who have disproportionate influence over the spread of social phenomena. 'Connectors', have wide and diverse social circles, being the hubs of social networks. 'Mavens' are knowledgeable people, who are particularly aware of innovations and adopt new things and ideas. 'Salesmen' are charismatic people that help market an idea to the masses. The implication is that social change requires involvement of people with a mixture of these characteristics. But to understand how concern for climate change tipped into the mainstream, at least in the West, we need to look at the changing nature of the concept, daily experiences, and the mechanisms of communication. The growing human face of climate change, people's experience of changes to their weather, and the entertainment media's engagement in this, have all been key. The first and last of these are instructive for those of us interested in social change.
First, climate change has begun to be understood as a humanitarian emergency. Studies are showing how increasing droughts, floods, forest fires, storms, erosion and sea rise, are destroying lives and livelihoods.2 Another side to the human face of climate change is the economic impact, which has been predicted at potentially 20% of the global economy. "Climate Change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen", writes economist David Stern. The environment is now too important to be left to conservationists. This marks a change in what cognitive scientists might call the 'cognitive frame' of climate change, whereby the term becomes associated with human, and thus personal and moral, concepts. George Lakoff's best selling book "Don't Think of an Elephant" popularized the theory of cognitive frames. Lakoff uses the term "tax relief" employed by the US Bush Administration, to illustrate how words have various concepts associated with them. "The word "relief" has a conceptual frame associated with it. In order to give someone relief, there has to be an affliction and an afflicted party -- somebody who's harmed by this affliction -- and a reliever, somebody who gives relief to the afflicted party or takes away the harm or pain. That reliever is a hero. And if someone tries to stop the person giving relief from doing so, they're a bad guy...They want to keep the affliction ongoing. So when you use only one word, "relief," all of that information is called up. That is a simple conceptual frame." 3 Various other intellectual traditions, such as critical discourse analysis, study the power of language in shaping our sense of what exists and what is possible. 'Discourses' are a series of interlocking cognitive frames that construct our worldview. By making links back to the neuroscience of the brain, and using simple examples, cognitive scientists have been able to popularize the insight that 'language is power' more than sociologists.
The second reason why climate change has tipped is the involvement of mass entertainment media. I used to think that mass media was important for communicating with, well, the masses. Not so. The mass media is important for communicating with powerful minorities. The demands on the modern professional in any line of work are such that to be successful we become highly specialized and overly busy. Our occupation becomes our preoccupation. And boy do we have to read, read, read to maintain our specialism. Consequently information doesn't penetrate very deeply if not coming from sources we assume contribute to our specialism, such as a trade magazine, business section, or top academic journal. We might scan the news but it's yet another tiring story, that doesn't reach us at a deeper level. But everyone has to relax at some point. As teachers will tell you, we all learn better when we are relaxed. So, elites can be reached in movie theatres. Another reason for the power of our cultural life is the way it provides 'social proof' for an issue: if everyone's talking about it, it must be important.4 An equally 'Inconvenient Truth' is that Al Gore has probably done more for climate change awareness with his Oscar-winning film that he did during 8 years as Vice President.
Whether working in NGOs, universities or government, it is important to learn how frames tip. Watching how the alternative fuel market boomed in 2006, and continues to do so in 2007, also suggests that frame-tipping is important for financial analysts to understand. One lesson is the importance of frames rather than facts. "Conventional frames are pretty much fixed in the neural structures of our brains" says Lakoff. "In order for a fact to be comprehended, it must fit the relevant frames. If the facts contradict the frames, the frames, being fixed in the brain, will be kept and the facts ignored." He sums this up as "Frames trump facts." Implication: don't just pump out your story and evidence, but change the framing, and look out for where people are doing this. Another lesson is reaching people in their leisure time, and the importance of cultural phenomena in opening people's minds to things they would otherwise consider peripheral. This relates to a third lesson, the importance of crossing worlds, and the points of interconnection between different realms of work and life. As Gladwell explains, it is through people connecting different social networks that ideas spread rapidly.
Some frames are deeper than others, in the sense that a change in them has cascading implications for a range of other assumptions and beliefs. Climate change is 'deep' in this sense, as recognizing it as real and urgent means we are challenged to question our assumptions about current forms of economic development being 'progress'. Hence 'tipping frames' not only describes the process of an altered frame going mainstream, but also those frames that, once altered, lead to other frames in society reaching a tipping point. Those of us who seek to serve systemic transformations for a better world, as described in the Lifeworth Review of last year, need to better understand this process of tipping frames. Figure 1.
A Crucible for Tipping Frames
The range of activities relating to corporate responsibility form a site for frame tipping, for three reasons. They bring different professions and knowledge networks together that would otherwise rarely meet. This includes the three sectors of business, government and civil society. It includes the different fields of public concern, such as environment, health, poverty and human rights, as well as those with a local and an international focus. They are also focused on framing issues, as the diverse actors seek to find a new shared language involving terms like 'partnering', 'social entrepreneurship' and 'extra-financial issues'. I previously argued that the most significant frame to tip in this field is the concept of what it is to be a professional business person. That used to mean leaving troublesome values at home but now its coming to mean the highest expression of your values at work.5 This relates to a broader movement towards what could be called "work-life blending".
There is a cognitive frame around 'work' which means it is separate from 'life'. This has the dual effect of making it difficult to assimilate information from life into one's work, and making us think that to be 'professional' we should leave a lot of our 'life' experience and interests at home. A new trend is changing that. Reports suggest younger business leaders and entrepreneurs are not only wanting more work-life balance but also 'work-life blending', i.e. bringing their whole personality to work.
Various factors are driving this. Technologies are enabling home-working which leads to the blurring of work and life. They are also allowing more entrepreneurial self-employment or side-employment, as the transaction costs of operating alone and connecting with a global market are dramatically reduced. Demands for creativity from knowledge based industries are inspiring more people to work outside innovation-sapping corporate office environments. The search for more meaning in ones work is a factor in this blending, as well as result (Figure 2).
Balance is a state of equipoise; equal distribution of weight or amount. Work-life balance suggests "work" on one side and everything other than work, on the other. Ss they are separate something can't be both "work" and "life" at the same time. However, blending is to mix inseparably together. Whereas balance is the counterpoising of separate things, blending is the integration of those things.6 Work-life blending is key to tipping the frame of the nature of 'work'. It has enabled me to write this Review in a more personal and wide-ranging style than the usual academic, UN or corporate outlets I can use. Blogging often involves a work-life blend, including my own (www.jembendell.com).
This blending relates also to the third reason why corporate responsibility events and networks are a site of frame tipping. They bring together people who have an interest in the state of the world, and who therefore have a strong social connection. Such people often meet in their leisure time, as illustrated by the growth of vibrant social-professional networks of people connecting on corporate responsibility around the world. From the one of the earliest social networks on this topic, CSR Chicks, which now has thousands of members, to "CSR Geneva", launched in mid 2006 and already with over 200 members who attend breakfasts, dinners and after-work drinks themed on different aspects of corporate responsibility, this area is extremely social. This reinforces the idea of our profession not being separate from our sense of self and allows discussions up, down and across hierarchies. It provides 'social proof' to people that they are part of a movement that sees and does business differently.
Changing Frames in 2006
Changes in basic assumptions about the nature and purpose of business and work will have major knock on effects for the behaviour of consumers, staff, investors and regulators. The review discusses various examples of where cognitive frames in business, finance, accounting could be tipping: that certain assumptions about what those fields are, what they involve, and what it means to be professional within them is changing, in ways that have wide implications.
Changes in the discourse around the financial services sector are particularly important. In the section 'Reframing Finance' we describe how a plethora of initiatives such as The Marathon Club, Enhanced Analytics Initiative (EAI) and UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UNPRI) are together helping reshape what finance professionals understand as being material and relevant to ones fiduciary duty.
Also important is the emergence of a positive connotation to the environmental challenge of consumption. In the section 'Consuming Truths' we describe how finding new pathways for social development that are sufficiently resource-light to be possible for a majority of the world's population over the long term, rather than the minority of a few generations of middle- to upper-class consumers, is a pro-poor vision. In the sections 'Who's Leading Hu' and 'A Different Path' we describe how new visions of sustainable development are arising in China and India. With the right leadership, development need not depend on risks such as cheap oil, inequalities such as poor pay and conditions, and the disruption of rural communities' livelihoods. As Rajesh Sehgal, Senior Law & Policy Officer at WWF-India explains, "Indian companies can become leading exporters of and investors in sustainable goods and services, whilst emerging as key actors in promoting a proactive international sustainable development agenda."
Whether this will lead to a tipping point in the way Asian nations generally view and pursue 'development' is currently unknown. A counter process of reframing has been underway for sometime, with the shift to individualism and materialism most clearly illustrated in 2006 by the economic boom in Vietnam, described in the section 'Capitalism's Rising Star'. The environmental and social strains of economic booms across Asia could bring things to a grinding halt, as warned by Mira Kamdar in her book 'Planet India'. 7 The implications for corporate citizenship are that companies and investors need to assess how they are helping or hindering the right frameworks and incentives for innovation and delivery of the business models needed in a resource-constrained future. Rather than doing business as usual, with some social and environmental improvements, the scale, urgency and depth of the sustainability challenge requires companies to engage with other actors in society to promote governance for sustainability.
In the recent past progressive people in business, government and civil society have been uncomfortable about the ethics of 'social engineering' public values. This is because it seems to go against the spirit of recognizing people's dignity as equal people, which underlies democracy and human rights. That is a huge mistake. We are all socially conditioned. Every year billions are spent on marketing advertisements, public relations and lobbying. This is done to influence people to spend money. In doing so they feed frames such as desire, status and materialism. It is because we have left compelling mass communications to institutions that pursue narrow self-interests that we have the public attitudes we see today. The challenge is to help make people conscious of the social conditioning processes, to reduce those that are damaging, and to promote those that are beneficial to people within their communities. Consequently some organizations, such as WWF, have been calling on companies to 'talk the walk', by using their communications functions of advertising, public relations, lobbying and investor relations to articulate the type of economy and society we need, and the innovations in public policy we need to get there.
From Environmentalism to Societal Growth
Like many established organisations in the environmental movement WWF is somewhat beset by its history. As George Lakoff, explains, "environmentalists have adopted a set of frames that doesn't reflect the vital importance of the environment to everything on Earth. The term "the environment" suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times. Wilderness: a place for those in Birkenstocks to go hiking." Environment implies what is around us not what we are part of. Words like protection and conservation are the opposite of positive words like freedom and change. What is needed is a positive vision for people and society: "prosperity, security, guilt-free luxury, health, a sense of progress and meaningful hope that the future will be better than the past." 8 The coming launch of One Planet Living in the UK in 2007, is one example of an attempt by a mainstream environmental group to rise to this challenge. 9
Many people have a 'block' when it comes to the word 'environment', such as some developmentalists from the global South. To them, environment evokes a frame of imperialists protecting wildlife and wilderness at the expense of poor people. It is important to keep ones audiences in mind when considering what frames need to be tipped. Having said that, the deepest frame that needs tipping is our story of existence: why we are here and our relationship to everything around us. Thinkers such as Thomas Berry10 and Ervin Lazlo11 point to a worldview where we are not separate from 'nature' but a wonderful expression of nature's, and the universe's, ability and intention to evolve through ever greater complexity towards consciousness of itself. By bringing new insight to theology and to the natural sciences, respectively, they point to a future where human purpose can be freed from the dogmas of religious institution.
The power of frames, and the need to work on deep frame change, poses a challenge to those organizations we might assume are working towards the public interest. - namely nonprofits, charities or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In most cases their strategies and work programmes are failing the meet the depth, scale and urgency of the challenges we face today. Due to concerns about upsetting existing donors, and misplaced notions of professionalism such as the idea an NGO should stick narrowly to the text of its mission rather than the values from which it derives and gets animation today, and that it should use linear models for relating action to impact to justify its budgeting rather than recognizing how systemic change might require new modes of evaluation, most NGOs only work on tipping frames in minor and marginal ways. As I argued in my report for the UN on NGO accountability, international civil society organizations must not ape old notions of business professionalism, but develop visions of excellence that are appropriate to their work, and come to a greater understanding of their common global purpose, in order to combine their efforts for deeper change. 12
The new philanthropy from the 30-something dotcom billionaires might shake this charity mentality from mainstream NGOs, if they chose to engage. So if you are out there, Pierre, Jeff, Sergey, Larry, David or Jerry... we are waiting.
Watching developments in corporate responsibility during 2006 suggests that people's deepest assumptions about both business and work could be changing in cities around the world, with major implications for future competitiveness. A more subtle shift than the widely reported growth in entrepreneurialism across Asia, it is nonetheless significant. It is a shift towards moral markets. Although more research is required on the nature of this shift, it seems to be enabled by the blending work and life, business and public purpose, news and entertainment. Although important, it is not the dominant trend in many parts of the world, such as the rapidly emerging nations. If we want to end poverty and protect the planet we have to make it the decisive trend. Although we can't legislate for personal morals, we can legislate to create market frameworks and incentives that support moral behaviour.
If there is a silver lining to the clouds of climate change, it might be in the way it wakes us up to our moral responsibilities as part of life on Earth.
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1 Bendell J. (ed.), (1999) Greener Management International, special issue 'Business-NGO Relations and Sustainable Development', Issue 24, Greenleaf Publishing: Sheffield, UK http://www.greenleaf-publishing.com/greenleaf/journaldetail.kmod?productid=85&keycontentid=8
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